by Sir John Lister-Kaye, House of Aigas,
Images courtesy of Aigas Field Centre
Those who turn their passion into their career take grave risks. There is a horrid possibility that neither will work. You can end up killing the passion and hating the career. I was lucky; for me it worked. Natural history had been a deep-rooted fascination from early boyhood. By spending my school holidays with a retired gamekeeper, I learned at an early age to identify common British birds, mammals and insects, especially butterflies and moths, everything that crept, flew or slithered. When I went off to school, I was astonished to discover that I was abnormal. Most boys barely knew a rabbit from a robin!
My destiny was to have been heavy industry. Part family influence and part direction imposed by the strictures of a conventional post-war society, I entered the fray. But my heart wasn’t in it and I longed for the weekends so that I could escape to the countryside. A few years later Gavin Maxwell of Ring of Bright Water fame, who was a friend and correspondent, lobbied me with highly unconventional advice. “Take a chance,” he urged. “You only live once.” He was an accomplished amateur naturalist and lived in the then very remote, wild mountains of the Scottish Highlands. When he offered me a job turning his island home into a wildlife sanctuary, it was irresistible. At 25, I was up and away to the Highlands like a shot.
Forty years later I am still here. After Maxwell’s unexpected death in 1969, I bought a derelict castellated mansion, turning it into a family home and, in 1976, into the Highlands’ first Field Studies Centre. (In international parlance, that is an environmental education centre, but with a difference). Aigas is run as a working estate. Our guests stay in timber lodges in the wooded grounds of the castle and eat and attend lectures in the fine high-ceilinged Victorian rooms of this turreted and battlemented hunting lodge.
Overlooking the River Beauly, it was built by wealthy Glasgow shipping magnates desperate to be seen as part of the deer stalking, grouse shooting, salmon fishing craze that catapulted Scotland into world renown when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gave the Highlands the royal seal of approval by building Balmoral Castle here in 1853. Aigas was built in 1877 at a time when sporting lodges and fine Balmoral look-alike castles were mushrooming along every glen and beside every loch.
Aigas took years to repair and evolve. Most people thought my wife, Lucy, and I were quite mad. The environment wasn’t a serious focus in the 70s. Nature was still for tweedy-skirted ladies in botany groups and for dotty butterfly nuts and bespectacled boffins fingering fungi. There were no real jobs in nature. Bus drivers, welders and accountants had real jobs; we were marginalized as hippies or some opt-out alternative society. Locals glowered at us with suspicion. Public agencies refused to assist us at all. It took years to win recognition.
The magnificent House of Aigas formal dining room and the cosy drawing room are a small part of Lady Lucy’s responsibilities running the household and the garden while Sir John oversees the Field Centre and the estate.
So what, exactly, do we do? Aigas has two lives. Our day programs deliver hands-on environmental education for local schools. Over 3,750 Highland school children attend day courses run by our team of young, enthusiastic rangers. But (literally) quite separate from all that, we have an annual guest list of over 500 adults in small and large groups, families and individuals from all over the world, many from august institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Harvard Natural History Museum, university alumni and travel groups, and many more who come on their own.
Osprey (above), capercaillie grouse (below), and white tailed eagles are common feathered residents of the estate.
Guests attend a wide range of programs:
Highland history: the breakdown of the clan system after the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances to the New World, the depopulation of the glens, the sheep economy right up to the present day.
Wildlife: golden eagles, capercaillie (the largest grouse in the world), red deer stags, 150 bird species, wild flowers, ancient Caledonian pine forest, and the remarkable story of Highland ecology.
Archaeology: chambered cairns, Bronze Age burial tombs, hut circles and Iron Age forts.
Land use: crofting, farming, forestry and the great Victorian sporting tradition.
Recreation: walking in wonderfully uplifting mountain scenery, learning by observation about every-thing that moves and a lot that doesn’t.
Our adults enjoy Lucy’s good home cooking, fine wine, crackling pine log fires, and the fun of staying in an old baronial Highland home. We believe in making people comfortable and giving them an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. We also regularly offer tours to Shetland, Orkney, Mull and the Western Isles.
It would be a mistake to think that the international reputation achieved, the awards won and the success we have enjoyed came easily or that employing and training up to 20 staff, and satisfying our clients in an ever-more demanding climate of competition and global travel is not a perpetual challenge to us. Without our dedicated staff we would be lost.
One of Scotland’s and the world’s best-known conservationists, Sir John Lister-Kaye is a writer and lecturer dedicated to nature conservation for over 40 years. His leadership roles have included Scottish Chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, President of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a Vice-President of the Association for the Preservation of Rural Scotland, as well as service on the boards of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Forestry Commission and the Environmental Training Organisation. He became the first Highlands & Islands Chairman for Scottish Natural Heritage in 1992.
Awards are equally impressive. In 1983 he won the Wilderness Society’s Gold Award for environmental education; in 2002 he was awarded the first ever Honorary Membership of the Scottish Wildlife Trust; he received an OBE from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth for services to nature conservation in 2003, and he has received two honorary doctorates from Scottish universities.
Sir John is a Times columnist and the author of seven books on wildlife and his recent best seller, Song of the Rolling Earth – A Highland Odyssey, published in 2003, has received widespread critical acclaim. Its sequel, Nature’s Child, was published in 2004.
He has led expeditions to wilderness areas such as the Kalahari Desert, Arctic Lapland and the Atlas mountains. In his spare time, he is passionate about planting trees, a keen horseman and an enthusiastic digger driver as well as being a bad poet. Sir John, his wife Lucy and their seven children live at the House of Aigas, near Beauly. Click here to view all 2023 and 2024 programs, including some overseas.